Whenever someone creates something that is original and expressive and fixes that expression in a way that lets you read, see, hear, or perceive it, federal law gives the creator a copyright in that work. For example, if a musician writes or records a song, the law grants the creator a copyright as soon as it is fixed on paper or recorded.
The length of a copyright is the creator's lifetime plus 70 years. During this time, he or she is the only person authorized to do any of the following with that work:
- Make copies of it
- Distribute it publicly
- Make derivative works or adaptations based on it
- Perform/Display it publicly
- For sound recordings, perform it publicly through digital audio transmission
- Give someone else permission to do any of the above
Copyright attaches to a work from the moment the work is fixed. It doesn't matter whether or not the copyright holder registers their work with the federal Copyright Office or puts any kind of notice or symbol on those works to show that they are protected by copyright. For that reason you should assume that any music, movies, or software shared on file sharing networks have copyrights, unless you clearly know otherwise.
Downloading a file involves making a copy of it to your computer. Sharing files over a peer-to-peer network involves distributing and performing them publicly, because anyone using the application has access to it.
If you do not have the permission of the copyright holder, and you download and/or distribute their copyrighted material, then you are violating the copyright holder's rights and the law. This is known as copyright infringement.
There is currently no exception in copyright law that allows you to download or distribute whole works without the copyright holder's permission. Copyright law does allow some limited uses of others copyrighted works without the copyright holder's permission. This is called Fair Use.
Some content adapted from IU.edu © 2009